I've been thinking about humor in novels. Or more specifically, humorous novels. By which I mean, a novel that attempts to make humor its central driving animus. There's a number out there; I've tried a few. And I've only ever found one that worked: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
It's ludicrous, and very British, and was unlike anything else at the time it was published in 1979 (perhaps because it was based on a series of radio episodes). The novel's plot is tissue thin. The world gets blown up, but Arthur Dent (a kind of everyman/fish-out-of-water) and his friend, Ford Prefect (an alien in disguise) are saved when Prefect "hitches a ride" on a passing space ship. A merry band of misfits come together, gallivant about the galaxy, and in between philosophical musings, and ridiculous asides, the story kind-of-sort-of bumps around through time and space. The only thing that holds the book together, besides its binding, is that it's really, really funny (if you like British humor). Again, there's basically no plot, no rising and falling action, no resolution to any conflict. The characters are wooden props, with no interior lives, and not one of them have anything remotely approaching an arc. They're just vessels for absurdity.
And yet it works. Because, again, it's a very funny book.
A lot of writers have tried to replicate this approach, and I haven't found one who's pulled it off. I think I know why.
I try to infuse a little humor into some of my works (Yonder & Far once had a reviewer who said he wasn't sure if I meant my writing to be funny, but he found some of the scenes absolutely hilarious—which I'll take as high praise). Misunderstandings, misdirections, a little absurdity, they can help break tension and an otherwise slow part of a story keep pace with the rest. But I couldn't pull off a whole book around gags and one-liners. Very few authors can.
Why? In my view, it's a challenge inherent in the medium. A stand-up comedian only has to entertain you for about an hour. A comedic movie, a little over an hour and a half. And in the span of that time, some jokes might hit the audience as gut-bustingly hilarious, some might fall a little flat, a few might bomb. But it's okay, the audience is indulgent because their time investment is small—and, perhaps more importantly, it's understood that, by and large, each "bit" is meant to stand on its own. A comedian can transition set-ups quickly, change the scenery, so to speak, in a matter of seconds to turn to the next piece of funniness. To a lesser degree, the same holds true for comedy movies. We'll indulge a loose-hanging plot line if the gags are good enough. Take Caddy Shack for example. The "plot" can be summed up as follows: a gauche condo developer shows up at a country club, rubs the blue-bloods the wrong way, and settles matters with a golf game; some characters come along for the ride (albeit for different reasons); hilarity ensues. Sure, there's a story in there, but that's not why the movie remains in syndication decades after its release. It's Bill Murray trying to kill a gopher. It's Rodney Dangerfield's bevy of one-liners. It's Ted Knight's pompous laugh. It's classic Chevy Chase being classic Chevy Chase. The comic strands are more than capable of holding together the movie.
You don't have that luxury as an author. To hold an entire novel together with humor, you have to pack humor into all 70,000-odd words. You have to keep the reader entertained for days, not just a couple of hours. If comedy is the only strand, it's going to have to be made of steel, which means the jokes have to be really funny. Not just enough to make the reader smile or giggle; the laughs have to keep the reader coming back day in and day out for days. And none of them can land flat.
That doesn't mean a book should eschew humor. If you're an author and that's your "voice," speak in your voice. But I do think writers need to approach humor in stories the way a chef approaches seasoning. Sprinkle in the right amount and you can make a good dish extra special. But if you try to make a meal around cumin, or pepper, or, God forbid, thyme, most people are going to politely decline and move on to something else.